Energy efficiency drives the global seasonal distribution of birds

  • Nature Ecology & Evolutionvolume 2pages962969 (2018)
  • doi:10.1038/s41559-018-0556-9
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The uneven distribution of biodiversity on Earth is one of the most general and puzzling patterns in ecology. Many hypotheses have been proposed to explain it, based on evolutionary processes or on constraints related to geography and energy. However, previous studies investigating these hypotheses have been largely descriptive due to the logistical difficulties of conducting controlled experiments on such large geographical scales. Here, we use bird migration—the seasonal redistribution of approximately 15% of bird species across the world—as a natural experiment for testing the species–energy relationship, the hypothesis that animal diversity is driven by energetic constraints. We develop a mechanistic model of bird distributions across the world, and across seasons, based on simple ecological and energetic principles. Using this model, we show that bird species distributions optimize the balance between energy acquisition and energy expenditure while taking into account competition with other species. These findings support, and provide a mechanistic explanation for, the species–energy relationship. The findings also provide a general explanation of migration as a mechanism that allows birds to optimize their energy budget in the face of seasonality and competition. Finally, our mechanistic model provides a tool for predicting how ecosystems will respond to global anthropogenic change.

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We are grateful to BirdLife International, NatureServe and all the volunteers who collected and compiled the data on the distribution of bird species, and to R. Green, M. Brooke, K. Gaston, B. Sutherland, B. Sheldon and B. Van Doren for discussions. M.S. was funded by an Entente Cordiale scholarship and an Edward Grey Institute postdoctoral fellowship.

Author information


  1. Edward Grey Institute, Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK

    • Marius Somveille
  2. Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK

    • Marius Somveille
    •  & Andrea Manica
  3. Centre d’Ecologie Fonctionnelle et Evolutive CEFE UMR 5175, CNRS – Université de Montpellier – Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier – EPHE, Montpellier, France

    • Marius Somveille
    •  & Ana S. L. Rodrigues


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M.S. conceived the model and developed it with A.M and A.S.L.R. M.S. also performed the analyses with support from A.M., and drafted the paper with conceptual and editorial input from all authors.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Marius Somveille.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Figures 1–11, Supplementary Results, Supplementary References

  2. Reporting Summary